The greatest Spiritual lesson from my Secular graduate program

In the Fall of 2008 I was in the final stages of applying to my graduate program.  I’d finished my GREs, submitted my application, and just had my interviews left before I would know whether or not the University of North Texas would let me try and become a counselor.  The interviews lasted almost and entire day and consisted of several group and individual discussions.  At last we were all brought together into a classroom with the professors to ask any additional questions we had before the day’s activities were over.  I asked the one question I hadn’t asked all day: “How long does it reasonably take to graduate?”  It was a 48 hour program (I opted to take 60 when the program was reaccredited half way through), at 12 hours a semester was 4 semesters a realistic goal?  The professor who answered was very straightforward:  “No, 4 semesters is not realistic.”  He then elaborated–he didn’t talk about prerequisites and internship placement, and all that stuff that truly did make it unrealistic–he said that we as students needed to be with them longer than that so that they would have sufficient time to change us into the type of people we needed to become in order to be good counselors.  He went on to explain that we would leave this graduate program different people than when we started.  He said that the

program didn’t push people towards change, it was just a natural process that resulted from learning how to help people through therapy.  He kept on going and talked about students who had, as a result of their program, gotten divorced, changed friendships, cut ties with family, changed religions, etc.  He said that we wouldn’t all experience such dramatic transformations, but that we would be changed nevertheless.

Well, here I am 5 1/2 years later, still married to Laura, still in touch with close old friends, I have mostly good relationships with my family members, and I’m still Mormon (although I had previously written about a time that my strength in my beliefs was momentarily weakened)…     So, what changed in me you might ask?

The answer to that, in one word, is Faith.

I never thought of myself having a relationship with a word, but I have a formed as deep a relationship with the word “Faith” that many people feel towards entire beloved novels or ongoing television series.  Just like people can learn more about a book from reading it time and time again, or a TV show by going back and re-watching the first season, I learn more about faith every time I read something new about it or even take a minute or two to contemplate it.

So what kick-started my love affair with this word.  Well, my graduate program prided itself on encouraging students to know, understand, and adopt one of the great theoretical approaches to counseling.  Oh how I struggled with that.  I tried out all of my teacher’s favorites: Adlerian, CBT, Person-centered, Choice, etc., and none were a good fit.  I eventually was painted into a corner and declared that I was Existential!  To which my professor and graduate advisor said “no way,” that I couldn’t be that theory until after I graduated, at which point they suggested I check out a few books on Gestalt Therapy.

It was reading through these books that I began to finally understand what our teachers talked about when they said they wanted us to be connected to a theory.  I liked this Gestalt stuff.  It added light to me and my understanding.  It provided framework and justification for the approaches and techniques we were being taught to use as therapists.

The thing about Gestalt that won my affections towards it was the idea of awareness as a constantly flowing river. It deemphasized the idea of a deep submerged subconscious and instead look to understand that our conscious is only capable of handling so much awareness at once and that the way a person shifts awareness from one things to another becomes a matter of habit and learning by adolescence and early adulthood.  The counseling theory is that by training someone to understand their cycle of awareness will bring about a natural change towards a better life, as opposed to symptom identification and management of other theories.  (I’ve just tried to condense Gestalt into a single paragraph, please forgive me the oversimplification.)

As I learned more and more about this idea of awareness, within me sparked the memory of something I had not read in over a decade but sounded familiar:

If men were duly to consider themselves, and  turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of  their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of  all action, in them; that without it, both mind and  body, would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.

These words come from Joseph Smith Jr.’s Lectures on Faith. Now in Gestalt, the idea of awareness is what drives people to action.  To see more of the parallels: continue to read Joseph Smith’s lecture:

Were this class to go back and reflect upon the  history of their lives, from the period of their first recollection, and ask themselves, what principle excited  them to action, or what gave them energy and activity, in all their different avocations, callings, and  pursuits, what would be the answer? Would it not  be that it was the assurance which we had of the existence of things which we had not seen, as yet?— Was it not the hope which you had, in consequence of  your belief, in the existence of unseen things, which  stimulated you to action and exertion, in order to obtain them? Are you not dependant on your faith, or  belief, for the acquisition of all knowledge, wisdom,  and intelligence? Would you exert yourselves to obtain  wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that  you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown  if you had not believed that you would reap? Would  you have ever planted if you had not believed that you  would gather? Would you have ever asked unless you  had believed that you would receive? Would you have  ever sought unless you had believed that you would have  found? Or would you have ever knocked unless you  had believed that it would have been opened unto you?  In a word, is there any thing that you would have  done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependant on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you got, or what do you possess, which you  have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith? Reflect, and ask yourselves, if these things are not so. Turn your thoughts on  your own minds, and see if faith is not the moving  cause of all action in yourselves; and if the moving  cause in you, is it not in all other intelligent beings?

Over the next few weeks (especially since I had a research paper due on the topic) I was consumed with understanding more about both the Gestalt view of awareness, and finding a truer understanding of faith.  Faith no longer felt abstract to me–something hypothetically stronger than belief, but less than knowledge–it felt more like a moral obligation.  In fact, the more I understood about faith, the less knowledge I realized I actually had.

As living beings constrained to living in the present who can have no true knowledge of future events, whether one second from now, or a million years from now, faith is absolutely necessary in order to make any decision about our future.  Anything from an innocuous choice about what groceries to purchase for dinner (we don’t know if something will prevent us from getting home) or major decisions about who to marry (we don’t know if our companion will remain the same person in the years to come).  As I began work professionally as a counselor I began to see what the earlier Gestaltists saw: people who either through habit or choice could not let their awareness touch on their biggest fears and insecurities about the future.  Through the lens of faith (not even in a religious sense), I could see these people as having not having faith or convictions that their choices could bring about a better future.  I just found myself amazed at the parallel lessons I was learning from men of science from the 1950s and a self-proclaimed prophet from the 1830s.

Now, for you readers who do not share my religion, I’ll grant to you that you don’t have to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, but I would hope that you could at least find some appreciation in his thoughts and philosophies.

The value that this understanding has brought to me in my life is that it provides me with the perfect tool for self-evaluation.  If I am experiencing anxiety or stress, I can look within myself and try and understand what I’m fearful about, where is it within me where my faith is weak and my fear is impeding my action? I can then decide whether my faith is insufficient and then act, or I can realize that I’ve put my faith in the wrong thing and need to fix that.  After all, the prophet Alma taught that for faith to work, the thing we have faith in must be true.  If we have “faith” in something that is untrue, then it is not faith, it is simply belief, and it is a belief that will someday break.

For me this makes faith far more intentional and somewhat risky.  It is easy to have faith in things that have been proven true in the past.  As Aristotle taught that tossing refuse into the street would produce rats, he could replicate that result, although his understanding of the mechanism was completely wrong.  As we understand more, the exercise and risk of faith lessen.  However, having faith in something that is completely unknowable is still very risky.  I cannot prove the existence of an eternal Christ-the-Savior empirically, but I still make decisions with the assumption of His existence.  Recognizing the room for doubt in that arrangement actually makes my decision to act in faith more personally powerful and meaningful.

I am hopeful that the thing I have faith in will prove to be true.  Which I suppose is what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews meant when he said that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

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Why I am a Mormon

One unfortunately thing that I come across with some frequency here in the blogosphere are stories of people who left my Church.  It pains me to see anyone who through life experiences does not find joy in the Faith that gives me so much joy.  I also worry that their stories might be a motivating factor to others who are struggling with faith and doctrines.  While I know there are many blogs that shed positive light on my Church, they typically focus on culture, doctrine, or lifestyle.  Rarely is there ever a story of how one finds continual commitment to the Church, an antithesis of the “Why I left the Church” story.

I was pondering D&C 46: 13-14

13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. 

14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

I know that I have been blessed to know that Jesus is the Son of God, and so I felt that I need to put my story out there, not as a criticism or condemnation of those who write about leaving the Church, but to simply put parallel information out there for those who may need some reassurance in moments when faith is challenged.

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because I have received guidance from the Holy Ghost that this is what Heavenly Father wants for me, and I have had this reconfirmed to me on multiple occasions.  It might sound simple, but it supposed to be a simple teaching.  Jesus himself told Nicodemus that a person must be born of the Spirit.

The moments in my life when the Spirit has spoken to me so profoundly that I could not deny its influence are very personally sacred to me and I do not share them lightly, so please forgive me if I am scant on the details (and please know that if you contact me privately I will be much more open).  The first time I knew that God was speaking to me was after I had experienced a temptation as a teenager and turned away from that temptation rather than indulge.  I was torn if I had made the right decision and in a moment of prayer was touched so powerfully by the Spirit that never will a day pass in my life that I will be able to deny the existence of God.  Another time happened a couple years later when I was warned through revelation to avoid a specific activity.  More have followed in my adulthood, one of which I have written about previously.

While I will never be able to deny the existence of God, deciding that my path to follow him would require my lifelong commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a separate matter.  In fact, committing to any one specific church is a very, or any church at all, is a challenging proposition given the adversarial nature that has accompanied Faiths in the history of humanity.  Basically, I think that in addition to being born of the Spirit a person needs to be converted to a specific Church in order to know he or she is in the right place.  For me, I find that I am constantly being reassured through the Spirit that I am in the right place.

There are so many great reasons to be a Mormon!  There really are.  I love the companionship that a ward congregation provides and the emphasis on the family that has allowed my immediate and extended families to strive for closeness and forgiveness.  I love the service opportunities of  mission work, disaster relief, food storage, employment assistance, personal and mental counseling, and companionship that I have been both a recipient and a provider of.  I love the simple doctrinal truth of the necessity of turning towards the Savior, Jesus Christ, for forgiveness from our sins, and the additional knowledge the Book of Mormon provides regarding the Savior’s atonement.  I love that we have a First Presidency and Quorum of Apostles who, along with their spouses, selflessly sacrifice the entirety of the golden years of their lives shepherding a church that grows by the millions every few years.

Yet I know there is enough other information to dissuade and discourage many from joining or committing to the Church.  Historical issues are plentiful: discrimination, reverse-persecution, polygamy, polyandry, financial crises, property disputes, personal vendettas, murders, and massacres, to name a few (I’d like to say I’ve been exposed to just about everything at this point, but I’m sure that someone could still dig up something that would be new information to me).  Our modern issues are also numerous and complex:  gender power disparities, LGBT issues, managing the ramifications of decades of discrimination, income inequalities, involvement in politics, central control vs regional autonomy, preservation of diverse cultures, suppression of adversarial voices, debatable economic investments, I could go on.

How to I reconcile all this?  This messy web of positive influences and negative influences.  How can I commit myself to an organization that, while provides me with so much, is also very, very imperfect?  How am I supposed to stay when I learn some new detail about Joseph Smith polygamy practices, or confront a member of the Church who clings to prejudices against Africans and justifies them with pre-1978 statements from prophets and apostles, or I learn about a economic investment the Church is making that I disagree with, or any of the other undesirable things that seem to accompany being a member of the Church?

Well, the answer that I have is given in the words that Jesus Christ gave to Oliver Cowdery when he had questions:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?

If you have ever been given a witness of something from God, I personally find that it is best to trust in that witness, remember it, and keep it in your heart.  We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by challenges, some of them societal and some of them personal.  So many times we will have the things we hold dear questioned and ridiculed, and many times what we think is right will be wrong (we should always be careful to not favor dogma over truth), but if ever in your life there has been a time that God spoke to you, never forget it.  Don’t let people convince you it didn’t happen, you know it did, stay strong to that.  If you have never felt you have had God speak to you, then try and speak to him.

Regarding the historical and modern day issues in the Church that can challenge you, never be scared to learn, but do so out in the open.  Talk about the things that you learn with real people, not in the anonymous and impersonal realms of the Internet.  Get the words of your doubts out through your mouth to a person (preferably people), not just into black and white text of a comment box or blog page; this way you will be able to have your emotion carried with your words to allow the person a better way to respond.  Understand that the historical things you discover exist on the Internet because people know them, don’t fall for the false canard that because people don’t always discuss it it has been covered up; don’t assume that your faithful family members or friends are unaware of them just because they are new to you.  For modern day issues, remember that they are worked through in the Lord’s time.  I personally hate (and I don’t use that word lightly) that it took from until 1978 for the Priesthood to be universally available to men when the leadership new the policy was non-revelatory since at least the 1920s, but I trust that the Lord can make up for the mistakes of men, including prophets, through the atonement.  I don’t know how the LGBT or gender inequality issues facing us today will be resolved, but I believe they will be.

I believe in a God that loves all His children regardless of the Church they belong to or the faith and ideas they hold, and I believe that He loves each and every one of us.  I hope that if you are someone who is currently debating how to live your life in accordance with God and your conscience that you will find something that works for you.  For me, that has required remaining committed to God since the moment that he first spoke to me, and trusting in the Church he guided me to for helping me use this mortal probation to prepare to meet Him.

Understanding Doubt

I have been wanting to write a blog post on working through doubt since May when I attended a wonderful lecture on this topic by BYU history & religion professor J. Spencer Fluhman. He had fantastic insight on doubt because his area of expertise is the Nauvoo era of the LDS Church which is when polygamy started to be taught to members of the church.  He talked about how many BYU students find their way to him to ask about polygamy and other issues that often arouse concerns (many of which are very valid). He also referred us to a compilation work he and some colleagues had assembled to address a number of the issues that tend to arouse the most doubt for us Mormons: No Weapon Shall Prosper

Well, here it is four months later, and I never got around to it.  However, thanks to Jana Riess’s blog, Flunking Sainthood, I’m going to give myself a pass for a little bit longer, and just refer you over to her post in the mean time.

Bottom line, don’t disengage or get confrontational with people over doubt, respond to their questions with love and compassion, and if you don’t know the answer, then find someone who does without making the questioner feel like they’re in the wrong for asking a question.

Here’s the link to Jana’s post:  Mormons Who Doubt

Latter-day Saints believe in the resurrected J...

Thoughts on historical context and Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith Mormon

Joseph Smith Mormon (Photo credit: More Good Foundation)

One of my favorite news aggregators is the Real Clear service that pulls opinion pieces from all across the web and then categorizes them into “Politics,” “Science,” “Technology,” “Religion,” etc.  I recently found a couple of articles in their Religion section on Mormon history to be rather interesting.

In case you are unaware of this issue, in the last 100 years or so, ever since the last people who knew Joseph Smith personally died, church publications about his life history tended to focus on the more positive aspects of his life history.  Some have interpreted this as a sort of cover-up.  In full disclosure, I am of the school of thought that it is simply a manifestation of cognitive-dissonance.  As historians no longer had access to primary sources that could put some of the unsavory and/or questionable information about Brother Joseph into context, they would just exclude it.

Well, this was all fine and good until the advent of the internet when everything knowable about Joseph’s life was suddenly published and many members came across information that had been left out of his official biographies.  What more, this information was often published without historical context and framed in a negative way.  I recently attended a conference with a BYU historian and he spoke of being on the defensive in the battle of providing context to Joseph’s life history and much of what he did.

Well, I found it interesting that on Sunday the New York Times published a lengthy article “Some Mormons Search the Web and find Doubt.”  It addresses this problem and unfortunately frames it badly, basically implying that it should be causing more problems than it is.  I read this via Real Clear Religion, and was disappointed.

So, then this morning I go back to Real Clear Religion and find a new article on Patheos about Joseph Smith and what the author frames as “occult” practices (“Occult in America: Joseph Smith“).  This was not written in response to the New York Times Article, and in fact was published one day prior.  The interesting thing about this article is that in spite of his use of the word “occult” and the derogatory moniker “old Joe,” he actually provides some very good historical context for certain religious practices Joseph used to seek revelation that have fallen out of favor both inside of contemporary Mormonism and mainstream American Christianity.  He provides several statements that normalize Joseph’s divining and revelatory practices.

Some selections:

“Those beliefs did not make [the Smith family] outsiders either, it made them average.”

“Incredibly such ‘visions’ were a part of the religious landscape in the United States during the early part of the 19th Century.”

“Old Joe was simply a product of his times, and while most of us today probably scoff at the idea of searching for buried treasure, it was a fairly common pastime in early America.”

“In addition to seer stones and divining rods Joseph Smith and family also practiced ceremonial magic. Again, this is not unique. In 1822 a magazine in New York stated that ‘we find textbooks of Kabbalah, necromancy, astrology, magic, fortune-telling, and various proofs of witchcraft’ when writing about a local bookstore.”

The author even opened with this gem: “When it was over and all my research was done if I found myself really liking ‘Old Joe.’ Don’t worry, converting to Mormonism never crossed my mind, but I’m drawn to religious outsiders, and Joseph Smith Junior might be the most famous religious outsider of the last 200 years.”

Smith's later theology described Jesus and God...

I genuinely feel sympathy for people who learn something new about the church and then are hit with a crisis of faith.  I even wrote on this blog about a similar experience I had when I truly questioned the Church’s discriminatory policy on the priesthood.  It’s terrifying to suddenly challenge what you thought you knew was truth.  I do believe though that if you have built your faith on a foundation of Christ you should be able to work through your crisis.  Just be optimistic, and know that your doubt will eventually be satisfied.

After all, if a non-believer can spend months researching Joseph’s “occult” practices and come away with a better appreciation of who Joseph was in the context of history, than surely those of us who have received divine inspiration that he was a living prophet can also do so.